To give you context for any cause for celebration over Netflix’s latest release Guilty – despite some glaring flaws – let’s refer to an incident that occurred in early January. Dressed in black, Deepika Padukone had joined the ranks of those protesting against a vicious attack by masked assailants at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
In reaction, Union minister Kailash Choudhary told the press that those found supporting the ‘tukde tukde gang’ were “equally guilty” – subtly hinting at Padukone’s supposed affiliation to this gang – a gang even the home ministry has “no information about“.
In that tumultuous atmosphere, the support of a single celebrity put the onus on others to take a stand too. It was not just her support in isolation, but the crucial message it raised that was important: that the powerful, those who hold sway, need to start speaking up.
Ruchi Narain’s Guilty, produced under Dharma production’s banner, serves a similar purpose. Based on the #MeToo movement, this film is an acknowledgement that the powerful do see us and that they are not complicit in the crimes of their colleagues. The film also carefully handles the question of manipulation. Who manipulated whom, and whether something like that is of any credit in a crime. “It feels like an assault on woke culture, and in several scenes, pretends like it’s an insensitive cousin to the terribly tone-deaf and shamelessly smug Section 375,” read the Hindustan Times review.
Netflix writes the synopsis as the trysts of a girlfriend in search of the truth when a “college heartthrob” is accused of rape by a “less popular student”. In a very Rashomon-esque narrative, Guilty traces accounts of eyewitnesses who narrate very different versions of the night of the crime. It clearly depicts how men and women alike dismiss the (mis)behaviours of their associates.
In a piece titled ‘If You’re Friends With a Sexual Harasser, You’re Part of the Problem Too’, published on Arre, Sreemoyee Mukherjee writes, “It is easy to accept that sexual harassers are other people; that your friends and family could never be entwined in that heinous a crime.” This is the exact mentality which leads to the rampant dismissing of serious allegations.
During the course of the film, the case is laid heavily against the “less popular” woman in question: Tanu Kumar (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor). Her Twitter handle is ‘TanManDhan’, she is called an “easy rider”, and she makes no secret of lusting after the college heartthrob Vijay ‘VJ’ Pratap Singh (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada). On the other hand, Vijay’s character (cringe-worthy from time to time) is portrayed as the alpha, the ultimate good boy who continually tries to protect his girlfriend Nanki Dutta (Kiara Advani) from the “evil clutches” of men and society alike.
The merit of the film lies in capturing the nuances of these public trials. Once Tanu ‘outs’ Vijay as a predator who had allegedly raped her on the night of the college fest, the audience is divided – there’s no foolproof conclusion to hang on to. Vijay is not a Kabir Singh prototype, hence the primary reaction to his character is not one of dislike or hate.
Similarly, Tanu is not the shy, closeted, traumatised portrait of a rape victim. She returns to college soon enough, and is vocal about her stance against privileged ‘man-children’. In fact, a significant portion of the college thinks she is “hashtag whoring”, and that her supporters are only helping out over popularity tokens.
To its discredit, Guilty lapses into an overused formulaic pattern: the honest lawyer (Danish), who goes beyond the requirements of his job in order to serve the greater good, the girlfriend with an obvious dark past attributed to sexual assault, the misportrayal and cliched use of mental illness as a trope, etc.
“The film itself feels like a dry, stage manifestation of a Twitter thread. As a viewer, it’s difficult to empathise with any of the faces involved,” reads Film Companion’s review. And it’s true, the characters come off uni-faceted, as though they are puppets with a limited role to play.
The film jumps right into its role as a #MeToo analysis, without anyone having enough time to make individual impressions.
In an attempt to cloud the judgement of the viewers and protect the element of suspense, the narrative also continuously maligns the victim. The washroom scene with Kumar hogging the water, the false accusation that Tanu levels against Nanki and so on seem crass after a point, continuously trying to make a point that has already been made – that Tanu Kumar is unconventional.
But the effort to uphold that tipped over into uncomfortable character assassination. The ultimate monologue delivered by Nanki, underlining the essence of the #MeToo movement – “ab hum hamare saath hai”, seems insincere since the film does not grant Advani’s character enough time to transform from the biased girlfriend who slapped the victim into a symbol of feminist liberation.
Just as the first half of the script is unnecessarily prolonged, the second half is a rushed attempt at fitting in every right word and phrase.
Despite all the flaws, Guilty continues to stand out because of the things it gets right. Mirchandani’s (Dalip Tahil) casual comment about firing all the female interns in the #MeToo season, hits close to home.
Before the end credits roll, the writers remind us that most of those accused during the Indian #MeToo wave have comfortably returned to work. There is still no strong measure to ensure that the guilty are held accountable. This film reminds us that the onus is on us.
Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.